I've never been in Asia before, and right now I'm standing at the very front of a train, riding from Tokyo's Narita airport towards the first Japanese city I've ever visited, Kamakura. There's a window straight into the driver's cabin, and through his windshield down the track ahead, where the rails gleam in the murk of late afternoon in November. It feels good to be up at the front, watching out for approaching points, guessing whether we'll switch tracks, enjoying the sense of the whole pristine Japanese train following us, as the carriages articulate themselves through the junctions.
In the distance off to one side, dense clumps of office blocks move past, their heads lost in low cloud, all their windows glowing distantly like columns of light in the rain. Street lamps are already lit, each one weaving a small web of light in the fabric of mist. It all looks like the London suburbs. Then we leave the urban sprawl, and rattle through clean and tidy commuter towns, with tall garden fences visible from the height of our track, and level crossings where dutiful lines of small cars wait for their chance to cross. We pass farms of grey fields, and copses of deciduous woodland climbing small hills, grey in the drizzle. It all looks like England
, my homeland.
Some places are unspeakably exotic to Western ears, yet disappointingly normal to Western eyes. I remember reading an account of a traveler arriving in Lima, Peru, by ship, only to find fog overhanging the whole shore, and the desert grey and drab. There weren't even palm trees. Altogether, the deliciously exotic sound of the names – Lima, Callao, Peru – was nothing like the reality.
Something akin happens to me here in Japan
. In many ways it feels disconcertingly familiar, like a doppelganger of England out in the Far East – another maritime island nation, rainy, a former imperial power, with a large industrial economy, and traditions going back to the Middle Ages, and an antiquated social system, and elaborate etiquette, and an obsessive fondness for tea. Like England, it seems built up with many small two-story houses, and full of small cars, and narrow roads, and tidy gardens. People even drive on the left.
But the way the train guard checks my ticket is anything but familiar.